The right to free speech is an internationally recognized concept that has a diverse definition within the borders of various countries. Yesterday, Penguin India sparked international outcry concerning Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History, when it announced they would remove it from circulation following a lawsuit from the Hindu nationalist group, Shiksha Bachao Andolan.
The Hindus is a comparison of recorded history and myth, a narrative account of one of the world’s oldest major religions. The leader of the Hindi group, Dinanth Batra, says that Doniger’s book will incite anger amongst communities, both Hindu groups and others the religion coexists with. He states his group is not against modernity, but they are against hatred that he says exists in hurtful anti-Hindu sentiments and lies.
Based on these claims, Shiksha Bachao Andolan filed a lawsuit against Penguin India, describing the definition of Hinduism in the book an injury of religious feelings and a violation of the Indian penal code. The Indian constitution outlines free speech as a fundamental right, but says that one person’s right to free speech must not offend the liberty of another citizen. Batra also stated that the overt sexual nature of the work was one of the group’s main objections.
After four bitter years of legal battle, Penguin India declared defeat and agreed to remove The Hindus from circulation in India. The publisher issued a statement today after the trial concluded in a Delhi courtroom, admitting that it was difficult for any Indian publisher to meet the standards of free speech without disobeying Indian law. They also asserted that they tested the boundaries of the country in which their author’s work was published, but ultimately had to concede only to the laws of the country in which it operates.
Authors such as Neil Gaiman, William Dalrymple, and Arundhati Roy have already spoken out vehemently against Penguin India’s actions in pulling the book, published in 2009. Roy penned and published an open letter to her publisher, asking Penguin India to reveal exactly what Shiksha Bachao Andola threatened them with in order to make them cave into their pressures. The author of The Hindus has herself also joined the conversation, saying she is troubled by what this decision says for free speech in India, but does not blame Penguin India. Doniger insists that her publisher made an effort to save this book instead of withdrawing it quietly, which it easily could have done.
In the age of the Internet, the borders in which free speech exists may define its nature. This means it is subject to an entirely different set of laws and regulations where the Internet is concerned. This also means that, despite yesterday’s ruling, The Hindus is still available digitally to those Indian readers who choose to seek out its contents.